A cheval. On horseback.
On the edge of the pasture, saddle in one hand and frayed cotton rope attached to horse in the other, I position myself to hoist the former onto the latter’s back. My feet are planted deliberately between the front and back hooves of the giant draft so that, in plunking the saddle down I resemble a yogi stretching from the core, reaching toward the horizon as I leave my lower half firmly planted out of harm’s way.
I’ve been stepped on before, but not by the likes of these horses, who not only might unintentionally do serious damage, but could also be quite long in budging a gigantic hoof if ever one were to break out in hysterics under the pressure of a ton of horseflesh. It’s a double-edged sword with Satine’s breed: more docile and gentle than the lightest and flightiest Thoroughbred, these horses are incredibly massive and powerful. I have one toenail that grows oddly because of a run in (or run-over?) with a Thoroughbred. If the same happened with Satine, I might not have a toe at all.
So, I mind my distance. As I struggle to tighten the girth around a very stout belly, I point my toes inward, transforming from yogi to duck.
“You okay over there?” Mélie shouts from the shoulder of her other horse, Utique. “She giving you a hard time with the girth?”
I smack Satine lightly on the belly. “Suck it in, girl,” I say. Then, to Mélie: “I’ve got it!”
With the same attention to my feet, and hers, I lift the bit to Satine’s mouth. Then, all straps buckled, I lead her to the opening in the barbed wire fence, resisting the urge to announce that such a barrier would never effectively retain a Thoroughbred. In the middle of a one lane country road I swing my leg over Satine’s back and heave a sigh of relief. It’s safer up here than on the ground with all those car tire feet.
A cheval. On horseback. I was born here, and now that I am in the irons again I feel secure. I reach forward and stroke the caramel coat under Satine’s mane as she marches slowly and methodically along the road. Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Mélie instructs from the back of Utique.
“We’ll turn left onto the trail up ahead. Satine knows the way.”
And so does Satine’s foal, Baya, who intermittently trots along behind or canters ahead beside the road. This is the Franche-Comté region of France, where people drive their cars with the knowledge that they share the road with animals – mostly cows, but sometimes horses. Mélie is not concerned. When a little beat up Renault rounds a corner, she marches Utique out into the middle of the road and holds her hand up, signaling to be aware of the little one. The car scoots cautiously past a very nonchalant Baya.
Into the woods, what looks like an old logger’s trail opens up before us and I turn in my saddle to tell Mélie how much it reminds me of home.
“It’s just like this behind my house,” I say. “The tunnel of trees, deer trails, and moist, hilly terrain. I could be out here with my dad right now, but it’s you behind me instead!”
We talk about pony club and trail riding and the psychology of little girls and their horses. The reins are loose as I look over my shoulder at Mélie, who nudges Utique to catch up with Satine’s longer stride.
When we emerge from the woods, we’ll find the winding road that leads to Mélie’s village. Approaching their big farm house – one that in another age contained the cows under the same roof as the owners – we will be greeted by her children’s voices. “Satine, Utique, Baya!” they’ll sing, exiting the house at a run. The horses won’t be fazed by the serenade, nor will they balk when the kids run right up beside them, reaching to stroke their soft muzzles and grasp their cream colored manes.
A cheval. As I sit at my computer, thousands of miles from Satine, Utique, and Baya, I look out my window and see two sleek bay Thoroughbreds in the pasture below.
In France, you can be à cheval when your feet are literally in the stirrups and you are “on horse.” You might also be à cheval sur les principes, which means you are a stickler for principles. But, most fittingly for me, you can be à cheval entre hier et demain, with one foot caught in the stirrup of yesterday and the other in that of tomorrow.
Today that’s where I am. Looking back, looking forward, looking to France.